Agricultural Powerhouse

With national rankings and green-thumbed, backyard ninjas, Oklahoma has it growin’ on.

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Memories of the Dust Bowl are in the distant past, especially since Oklahoma is an agricultural powerhouse with an $8 billion annual average impact from 34.2 million acres of farmland brimming with cattle and grains, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.

“People go to farmers markets and see many things grown in the state which they can choose to grow themselves,” says Don Stotts of Oklahoma State University’s Division of Agriculture Science and Natural Resources. “But many might not know that we’re nationally highly ranked in several crops, such as second in canola or fifth in all hay and wheat.”

Oklahoma’s agricultural tradition continues to thrive more than 100 years after statehood. Photo courtesy OSU

This economic vibrancy is due in large part to sustainability, Stotts says. The state’s agricultural practices are environmentally sound and include crop rotation to ensure no repetition of the Dust Bowl, when all that was planted was “wheat, wheat, wheat with no rotation.”

Oklahoma does well in the broad-stroke, macro-economic categories of agriculture, but we’re also rich in oddities, such as the century-old Horn Canna Farm in Carnegie, home to the world’s largest canna lily farm. Oklahoma also benefits from the entrepreneurial gumption of savvy individuals like Travis Marak, a fourth-generation dairy farmer.

“Travis’ family has historically sold milk to Hiland Dairy in Chandler since the homesteader days,” says Dave Shideler, associate professor of agriculture economics at OSU and community development specialist for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service. “Travis is developing local markets directly to grocery stores and farmers markets with dairy-based products with local branding.”

Wheat studies are done by Oklahoma State University at the Agronomy Research farm. There are plots of every wheat OSU has developed. Photo courtesy Mitchell Alcala/OSU

Other business-minded growers have opened their properties to the public as recreation destinations, including several lavender farms offering herbal products. Lavender Hill near Haskell also makes and sells wine.

Honey Bear Ranch near Broken Bow Lake began as a hobby, owner Phil Harris says, but it has grown to draw tourists and locals alike with more than 40 varieties of unusually colored, organic, non-genetically modified heirloom tomatoes and peppers. He also sells “the Rolls Royce of organic fertilizers and soil amendments.”

Agriculture is about more than just engaging in commerce, Stotts says. It includes lawns, trees, flower and vegetable gardens, and containers overflowing with tomatoes and herbs in urban and rural settings.

“We’re all agriculturalists,” Stotts says. “If you own a home, you have a lawn; you may have flowers, trees. That is urban agriculture. It’s easy to see rural agriculture, but urban ag happens all around you, every time you fertilize your lawn. Folks might not know that Oklahoma is one of the leading producers of Bermuda grass that’s so good the NFL plays on it and it’s on the infield for the Kansas City Royals. Agriculture is all around us, literally.”

OSU Teaching GreenHouses are used by students in horticulture to learn real world management and propagation of plant materials. Photo courtesy Todd Johnson

Shideler adds: “Culturally speaking, Oklahomans tend to garden more frequently than [people in] other states. To support that, we’ve got the master gardeners program for resources and advice. Relative to similar programs in other states, Oklahoma has a very large and active master gardeners movement.”

The most important agricultural decision someone can make is to have the soil tested.

“Farmers who grow crops get their soil tested to get the best results,” Shideler says. “It’s no different on the smaller scale. County extension offices do soil testing for nutrients, identifying conditions [and] gauging water needs.”

Returning to the land is a common theme for Oklahomans, he says.

OSU Teaching GreenHouses are used by students in horticulture to learn real world management and propagation of plant materials. Photo courtesy
Todd Johnson

“Many households have subsistence gardens,” Shideler says. “They may have a job in the city, but they still have some rows in their backyard, and many even keep a cow, goat or sheep that they’re raising as meat for the family. My observation is that the Land Run was only about 120 years ago. So this idea of farming and being self-sustaining and independent is only a couple of generations removed, so there is still a lot of that culture permeating our lifestyle in this state.”

Growing crops, rearing animals and having a reverence for one’s roots provide good news in the long run.

“We’re also seeing a re-emergence of people returning to Oklahoma,” Shideler says. “People who went away after college are moving back to Oklahoma in the latter part of their careers or retirement wanting to get back to the land, and buying some acres so they can have a garden, maybe animals, horses to ride – all part of a pastoral lifestyle that they had as a child growing up in Oklahoma.”

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